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Evacuation notice lifted in Utah town near cracked dam

SALT LAKE CITY — An evacuation notice was lifted Friday for the southern Utah town just downstream from a fissured dam after public safety officials said they were able to release enough water to prevent a total breach.

Nearly 1,800 residents of Panguitch, a gateway town to the crimson-colored hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, had been on high alert in the days since inspectors discovered an unexpected 60-foot crack in the Panguitch Lake Dam on Monday night. Residents rushed to gather their valuables in case of an evacuation as safety crews emptied water into a creek and trucked in boulders to stabilize the wall.

As of Friday, water levels in the reservoir had dropped 8 inches (20 centimeters), alleviating enough pressure on the dam that state and local officials said they could confidently lift an evacuation notice urging residents to be ready to leave town within two hours of a breach. Panguitch sits about 10 miles downstream from the dam.

“We want to release that anxiety, but we still want people to be ready to go, just kind of have a preparedness mindset,” Wade Mathews, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety, said Friday.

Lowering the reservoir to below the affected area will take another seven to 10 days, he said. Safety crews will continue reducing the water level until it’s 1 foot below the cracked section so inspectors can fully assess the damage.

Everett Taylor, an assistant engineer for dam safety with the Utah Division of Water Rights, urged residents to remain vigilant through the spring runoff season, as unforeseen circumstances might lead officials to reinstate the evacuation notice.

The fissure will not be repaired until the end of that runoff season, which is typically in June, Taylor said. Water levels in the spring are too high for construction crews to make major repairs, he explained, so all of the stabilizing elements put in place this week will remain until the early summer.

“To repair the dam, we would have to undo everything we’ve done, and that would just create another emergency situation,” Taylor said.

Over the last week, crews cut into an ice sheet that had pushed up against the dam, causing the top to crack and tilt downstream. The ice sheet has since pulled back, and the wall is no longer tilting, Taylor said. Safety workers left the necessary equipment on site so they can act immediately if high winds cause the ice to shift back up against the dam.

The dam was built in the late 1800s, but the top portion that cracked had been added in the 1930s and 1940s. State officials said there were no previous concerns regarding its structural integrity.

While the dam itself no longer poses a present danger to nearby communities, Matthews said, the controlled release from the reservoir has caused cold water to surge through the town’s creeks and streams. The risk of drowning is especially high, he said, urging residents and visitors to avoid fast-flowing water.

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